Bracing my dad’s spinning rod against the handlebars of my bike I coasted down the long gravel hill in the predawn chill of an early May morning, I was almost there. Just ten years old and I was already possessed with a love of fishing. Two years earlier my dad had bought me a cheap push button rod, the type most kids start with, and I’d practically worn it out exploring the creeks near our home. Now I felt it was beneath me and I aspired to something more.
The night before my parents had hosted a dinner party and I was sent to bed promptly at nine.
Crouching at the top of the stairs I could hear my uncle’s voice as the conversation drifted to fishing. “I think maybe the kid’s old enough to handle a spinning rod this year. He’s getting pretty good!” “I think you’re right” my dad murmured, “Maybe I’ll give him my rod to practice with when we’re up north in a couple of weeks.” In my eyes that constituted permission. When the adults were preoccupied, I crept downstairs into the basement to find my dad’s rod and rig it up. It was an old seven foot South Bend fiberglass affair paired with a Mitchell 300 spinning reel made in France. At the time it was state of the art. Tying on a small hook from my precious collection, and crimping some split shot onto the line I was ready. What my dad didn’t know was I’d already been practicing with his rod in the backyard. I knew how to use it.
Steelheads were running in my local river and I aimed to catch one. I had tried before, but my awkward attempts had always been met with failure. Two days earlier I’d spent some of my allowance money at the local hardware store on a jar of Uncle Josh Spawn Sac’s. They were dime sized clusters of bright red salmon eggs wrapped in orange mesh. Unscrewing the lid at home in my bedroom, the smell was overpowering. I figured every fish in the pool would be racing to pounce on them.
The house was silent when I arose the next morning at 5am and slipped out the back door with my backpack and dad’s rod. I knew I’d catch hell from my parents when I returned, but I didn’t care. I was on a mission.
At the base of the long hill I turned onto a rutted trail peddling as far as I could before it grew too rough. From there I walked. Few people knew about the trail and it soon became dim and overgrown. I’d discovered it the previous summer while exploring the river and it was my own private paradise. To a child of ten this was high adventure — like being in the middle of a vast roadless wilderness. Pushing my way through the mounds of long grass I was soon soaked straight through from the heavy morning dew clinging to the undergrowth. Shivering a bit I forged ahead, my breath forming plumes of vapor in the cold morning air. The trail snaked its way through a dense thicket of cedar, their pungent aroma mixing with the wet forest earth and wafting into my nostrils. To this day when I smell cedar I think of trout.
Finally clear of the cedars I arrived at the river. Flowing sinuously through a shady copse of maples and oaks it almost seemed alive. Just downstream was an ancient wooden foot bridge spanning the banks, its origins and purpose unknown. Upstream the river compressed creating a jaunty little riffle that gurgled its way into a pool. A glorious pool — one that I knew held steelhead. The weekend before I’d biked over there in the afternoon and spent a good hour lying on the old bridge peering intently into the water. Every so often the sun would break from behind the clouds and penetrate the depths. Like a veil being lifted from my eyes I could clearly see the fish. There was a pod of six steelhead fanning over the gravel in the heart of the run. Mesmerized I watched them slowly move about like grey ghosts, perfectly camouflaged against the pebbled bottom of the river. That’s when I hatched my plan.
Fumbling now in the cold I unscrewed the cap from my jar of spawn sac’s and plucked one out, carefully threading it onto the small hook. I shivered again, this time from excitement as much as the chill. Directly across from me was a huge submerged boulder which the pod of fish had been sitting behind when I spied them previously. In the grey light of early morning I could see nothing, the water’s surface almost looked black. But they were there.
Lobbing my bait across and slightly upstream, I fed out line as it drifted into the hole behind the rock. Holding the rod high overhead as I’d watched my uncle do, I closed the bail and slowly reeled in slack as my bait settled to the gravel bottom of the river. The hit, when it came, shocked me. There was no warning. My arm was almost pulled forward and I was instantly connected to a very large, very irate steelhead. The fish immediately zipped upstream past the big rock then stopped at the head of the pool to wallow on the surface. When I saw the size of it
I almost panicked; it looked longer than my leg. Madly reeling in line to keep up with the fish it turned again then bolted downstream at lightning speed, the drag on the old reel screeching its protest.
The fish paused briefly at the tail out of the hole, then in a moment that’s forever etched in my mind, it turned and ran under the bridge barreling further downstream at warp speed. Not thinking, just reacting, I charged into the river up to my waist to follow the fish. I had no waders, just an old pair of jeans and sneakers, and the icy water shocked me for an instant. Slipping on the greasy stream bed I side stepped downstream and ducked under the bridge holding my rod low. Incredibly I was still connected to the fish. I rushed downstream running along the shallow margins of the river, reeling as I went. Finally in a quiet back eddy three hundred yards downstream from the bridge I caught up to the fish. There was no finesse on my part, I hauled back on the rod and horsed it onto a shallow gravel bar. Throwing my rod on the ground I jumped on the fish and wrestled it to the bank.
I was soaking wet from head to toe and covered in mud when I turned into our driveway later that morning. My parents were there waiting. “Look at you!” My mother said in a slightly alarmed voice. “Where have you been all morning? We’ve been worried sick!” My dad looked on quietly not saying a word – not a good sign.
I was still bubbling over with excitement as I tried to tell them in a rush what happened. Taking my backpack off I spilled the great silver fish onto our front lawn. At that moment a strange look came over my dad’s face. Turning to mom he eyed her quietly and said softly “Don’t worry about it Betty, I’ll handle this.” My mom clearly still agitated rolled her eyes and turned towards the door. “Fishermen! I’ll never understand them!”
Dad looked towards me with a small smile on his face. “Come on inside the garage boy, I want to hear exactly what happened!”
To read more of Mike’s adventures, visit canadafishingguide.net